DIVA TALK: Karen Akers Chats about Stephen Sondheim; Ah Men! for Betty Buckley

News   DIVA TALK: Karen Akers Chats about Stephen Sondheim; Ah Men! for Betty Buckley
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Karen Akers
Karen Akers

Karen Akers, who appeared on Broadway in the original productions of Nine and Grand Hotel, earning a Tony nomination for her performance in the former, has now turned her attention to the songs of Stephen Sondheim with equal success. In fact, about her new show at the Algonquin's Oak Room, which is entitled Live, Laugh, Love: Akers Sings Sondheim and features such tunes as "Send in the Clowns," "Losing My Mind," "Not a Day Goes By," "Could I Leave You?," "Ah, But Underneath," "Good Thing Going," "Loving You" and more, the New York Observer raved, "[Akers] looks at the brilliant composer's erratic tempos and captivating lyrics through a magnifying glass, finding new meanings under, behind and on the edges of lyrics less courageous performers inevitably pass over..." And, the New York Times called Akers "a many-leveled singing actress who... deconstructs everything she sings like a Method actor." Eric Michael Gillett directs the new show, which features musical director Don Rebic on piano and Dick Sarpola on bass; performances will continue through Oct. 29. Earlier this week, I had the chance to chat with the singing actress, whose sound was once compared to "silver bells wrapped in velvet," an appropriate description for a voice that ripples with emotion and depth. Akers spoke about the challenges and rewards of performing the work of Broadway's Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer-lyricist; that interview follows.

Question: How did the idea for an all-Sondheim show come about?
Karen Akers : It's been in the back of my mind for a long, long time, and each time it was time to think of a new project, and we were getting pushed for "What are you going to be doing?," I flirted with the idea, and then, I don't know, I would chicken out for one reason or another. [Laughs.]… I told Sondheim that I wished that vocally I had done this show 20 years ago, but then, of course, I wouldn't have had the life [experience], and I think his music, his songs, benefit, at least the ones I am attracted to, [from that]… It requires some life behind you, so maybe I have a better crack at it even if I haven't got all the notes I'd like to have.

Question: With so many shows and so many songs, how did you go about picking which ones you wanted to do?
Akers: Oh Lord, it was daunting! [Laughs.] The original list probably had between 40 and 50 songs, and then I would whittle it down some more. Eric Michael Gillett, my director (I brought song titles in that I was curious about and wanted very much to do), had all sorts of things. He was thrilled by the idea and said, "It's important. You're a decent actress, and you can do a great job." So, he brought ideas and then we just kept whittling down. Someone said, "You have a whole new show you can do. You can do Sondheim Part 2." [Laughs.] "Or Sondheim Part 3!" And, I'm sure that's true. It's just, I have to confess, that in this particular show I am doing some of my favorites, but Lord, there is so much wonderful material. So much.

Director Eric Michael Gillett

Question: You could do an entire act just from one show of his, let alone ten shows…
Akers: You could do all kinds of things. I'm just thrilled to be doing it… It's interesting. In rehearsal one day, Eric said, "You're really doing too much, I think, here. Remember, Sondheim has done a lot of the work for you." He gives you these extraordinary words that are so carefully chosen. It's really, in a sense, hard to go wrong because you have the benefit of all the time he spent honing and crafting the lyrics, and so these songs are just gifts. My problem is simply having the stamina to really do them justice — to do the music justice. It's a fairly intense show, [but] it's wonderful and it's fun. I'm so grateful to him for the song title "Live, Laugh, Love" because it really does, as I tell people, give us a framework for the evening. It did mean that certain things didn't work as well, songs that I had thought I might sing, because they simply didn't fit quite as nicely into one of those categories.

Question: I know that you're doing three of the songs that he wrote for Phyllis in Follies.
Akers: Yes. It's a fabulous segment, and I love doing it. It also gives me a chance to ask the audience not to get their hopes up for a dance number [even though] "Lucy and Jessie" was [supposed] to be that. My mother's legs were great — are great — mine are purely utilitarian, and I am not a dancer, but it's a lot of fun. The last section, as I also let the audience know, it's not a question of laugh-out-loud funny. The songs share wit and style and a sense of self-awareness. All of which I hope will amuse them, but the tears won't be streaming from their eyes, as sometimes happens when you laugh a lot. My father always cried when he laughed. Question: I know "Send in the Clowns" was on your very first album. How has that song changed for you over the years?
Akers: Oh, I think age has made a big difference in a sense because things you think are so important when you're young are really not that important. In some ways, the sheer longevity of a love or a friendship or a closeness matters a great deal, but it's funny that just when you think you've reached an understanding and a rapprochement with life, you can still have the rug pulled out from under you. There are different ways of coming at it and it's not always the same, which is another wonderful thing that he does. I suppose even though these songs are written for particular — very particular — characters, once you take them out of context, they open so wide. There are lots of ways of understanding them or interpreting them.

Stephen Sondheim
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Question: In theatre you get a few weeks before you open, before the critics come, whereas in cabaret, they all come on your first night.
Akers: [Laughs.] And, it's amazing what happens between opening-night Tuesday and say first show Saturday night. It was night and day. We had technical glitches, too, [on opening night]. Staging was out the window because a stool that should have been preset wasn't, and a microphone—a cordless mic—was supposed to be given to me offstage… It was an unusual way to open, and it wasn't given, and I said, "But wait. Where's my mic?," and, he said, "It's up on stage." [Laughs.] So, you know, a few things were just out the window and that really did, I think, affect things… It can't help but affect things… I try to rise above it all and connect with the songs. Live the songs—that's really the important thing. So, it was minus some staging—minus a lot of staging—and things like that, but the material is so good, I have to hope that will always take precedence.

Question: You mentioned Eric Michael before. I wonder, how did that partnership come about? You've been working with him now a few years.
Akers: Yeah, we worked together the first time, I think, five years ago, and it came about because my musical director—and, by the way, my guys are unbelievably good. The level of musicianship that they both have attained is quite remarkable. Don Rebic is my musical director, and we are working with the bass player Dick Sarpola, and he's fabulous, he's just fabulous, and Don's arrangements are wonderful. Don is artistic director down at a place called the Singer's Forum, and Eric was teaching there, and Don said to me, "There's a fellow here I think you ought to meet. I think it might be very beneficial for you two to work together. He's really smart and he knows your work, and he's interested. If you are, I think the two of you should get together." So, we did. We had supper, and I just made up my mind that I would trust him, and it sort of took off from there.

Question: How do you think he's changed your work? Or, what do you like about having a director and another set of eyes?
Akers: I rely on it now. It's very, very useful because you're much too close, in a sense, to what you are doing, and he really does — he's very, very savvy and smart about how to construct a show, and I'm sure I've learned some things over the years, but once I sort of heard the way his mind works… I certainly was never that talented at [putting a show together], so I'm very grateful for his presence. Also, for his ideas. Musically he has helped us by having wonderful ideas or inspiring Don to create something. When we are working — all three of us together — it is a lovely, very collaborative process. I remember in the Rodgers and Hart [show], there was a song, "This Funny World," and Eric said something to Don, and that led Don to create one of the most beautiful arrangements he's ever done. It involved ragtime, and I don't think Eric even used the word ragtime, and it wasn't honky-tonk, it was just something like that. It sort of set in motion this series of ideas, images and so forth and Don came up with that. Sometimes Don and I just find something. I remember with "Beautiful" from Sunday in the Park With George, I told Don I wasn't quite comfortable with how it had been extended in the show, some of the lines. I told Don what I felt I'd like to do with it, and all of a sudden there it was. He would play, and there it was. So, he's quite amazing.

Karen Akers

Question: You've been doing these songbook shows the last couple of years [Akers has previously explored the works of Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Kander and Ebb and more]. How would you say Sondheim songs differ from the other composers? Or, maybe what are the challenges that he poses?
Akers: The ballads are extraordinary. Sondheim seems to go deeper in a way than some of the other composers. He gives you the room. I'm sure there are many ways to sing it. I'm sure you can sing these as simply gorgeous songs, but if you're interested in probing — I'm also an actor — so it interests me to imagine what this person is singing at this particular moment, what's going on. Someone said something very nice the other night. They said they were attracted to Sondheim because he was so smart and his songs were so intellectual, but she said, "You give us the emotion behind them." And, that was a lovely thing if that is how she took it. You try to do that without holding on to it because you want the audience to have their own emotional response. It simply comes through you, and everything you feel should be available if you're living in the moment. That is the ideal. And, it's available, but you're not holding onto it, so that the audience can have whatever reaction or response they want, and what's right for them.

Question: Has Sondheim had a chance to see the show?
Akers: No. I was too chicken to invite him to the opening [laughs], and I'm really glad I didn't now, given our technical glitches and what have you. But I have a note here on my desk, and I'll probably send it in a day or two. I want to email him again, but I will send him an invitation. Absolutely. Formally.

Question: Is there any talk of recording this show?
Akers: Oh, honey, I would so love to do it. If I can find a producer who'd be willing to invest or help me to do it, you bet. I was looking at a list of songs and all the things I didn't get to do. [Laughs.] So, I would love — my brother-in-law tells me, "Record, record, record." And, of course, I haven't been. There's a rough [Cole] Porter show out there that the sound engineer whom I loved working with, Cynthia Daniels, has, a live version of the Porter show from the John Drew Theater last summer or summer a year ago. And, I have to go back into the studio and make a few fixes.

Question: I have one more question for you: What kind of project could lure you back to Broadway?
Akers: [Laughs.] I can't talk about anything yet because nothing is set, but there is a new project. There's a workshop… but that would involve my singing and not necessarily being part of the dance/acting.... It would have to be a project — I would just want to love it. That's not so hard. [Laughs.] In fact, with me, that's very easy. [Laughs.] You know, I'm crazy about whatever I'm doing. I'm very much a present-moment sort of person.

[The Oak Room is located within the Algonquin Hotel at 59 W. 44th Street. For reservations call (212) 419-9331.]

Betty Buckley
photo by Myriam Santos

In her 40-year Broadway career, Tony winner Betty Buckley has demonstrated time and again that she can play any female role in the musical theatre canon: Whether she is portraying the mother of a young girl with telekinetic powers, an aging glamour cat or a faded silent-screen star, she does so with her astonishing gifts as an actress and a singer. That mix of vocal prowess and deeply felt emotional availability was also on display earlier this week in her new show at Feinstein's at Loews Regency, Ah Men! The Boys of Broadway, where Buckley proved that she would be equally adept at playing just about every major male role in the musical theatre.

Accompanied by Christian Jacob on piano, Peter Barshay on bass and Anthony Pinciotti on drums, the Tony-winning Cats star scored with tunes from Sweeney Todd, West Side Story, Guys and Dolls, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, Pippin, South Pacific and La Cage aux Folles that were delivered with equal parts strength and tenderness.

Highlights of the evening included a beautiful rendition of "Maria" from West Side Story; a touching reading of "Venice" from William Finn's Elegies that once again confirmed Buckley's superior skills as a singing actress and one of the great storytellers of her time; a rhythmic and belty version of the Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner standard "Come Back to Me"; a moving "Hey There," which featured a terrific arrangement by music director Jacob; a suite of songs from Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd -- "Not While I'm Around," "Johanna" and "My Friends" — that Buckley built to a ferocious intensity; and an infectious version of the Pippin anthem, "Corner of the Sky."

Another high point of the generous set was a humorous, extended medley, arranged by Eric Stern and Eric Kornfeld, that allowed the Olivier-nominated actress a chance to take on the leading male roles from Fiddler on the Roof, Les Miserables, Carousel, The Music Man and more, and she did so masterfully.

More than anything, the evening let the gifted artist reminisce about the great movie musicals that influenced her as a youngster in Fort Worth, TX. Topping her list was the award-winning film of West Side Story, explaining she often performed the film's iconic opening in her family's driveway, only to have her dad jokingly exclaim, "Betty Lynn, the Jets are going to church now!" Buckley also described her admiration for the work of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire; in fact, when she needs a bit of motivation, Buckley admitted that she often watches clips of the late Astaire on YouTube. Funnily enough, when this writer needs some inspiration, he tends to view clips of Buckley on YouTube. Buckley will play the posh cabaret through Oct. 29. Let's hope Broadway is her next destination. I would say Ah Men! to that.

[Feinstein's is located at 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street in New York City. For ticket reservations and club information, call (212) 339-4095 or visit feinsteinsatloewsregency.com and TicketWeb.com.]

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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